Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Asia’s Growing Number Of Sneezes

Pollution to blame for Asia’s growing number of sneezes

Posted on : 2008-09-29 | Author : DPA – News Category : Health- The Earth Times

Hong Kong – It starts with a sneeze, a runny nose and a cough. You think it’s a cold but when the symptoms persist, you consult your doctor. The diagnosis: Bad air. You are suffering an allergic reaction to pollution. Smog is a worsening problem in Asia’s cities, impacting increasingly on the quality of life and the general health of the people who work and live there, say experts.

Dr Johnny Koo Tak-ching has no doubt pollution is partially to blame for the growing number of coughs, sneezes and sore throats he treats at the private Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Central Hong Kong where the majority of patients are expatriates who move from city to city in their work.

“Those patients who have long-term rhinitis, sinusitis and nasal polyps get worse when they are working in a city with higher pollution. They can tell which city has the highest pollution by how bad their symptoms get.

“They feel much better in places like Cyprus and some of the northern Chinese cities like Harbin but feel worse when they move to places like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

“Singapore is better than Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur is better than Singapore.”

A report by the Hong Kong think-tank Civic Exchange claimed poor air quality was responsible for 10,000 premature deaths and 440,000 bed days in hospital a year in the Hong Kong, Macau and China’s Pearl River Delta area.

And it is not just the very young, old or those with existing respiratory problems such as asthma who are paying the price for pollution. Ear, nose and throat experts claim they are seeing an increasing number of seemingly healthy people seeking help for problems of the upper respiratory system caused by pollutants in the air.

Ear, nose and throat expert Dr John Woo Kong-sang said in most cases the allergy to pollution manifests itself as rhinitis or rhino-sinusitis – inflammation of the mucous membrane lining of the nose or sinuses – causing symptoms such as runny noses, sneezing and coughing.

A sore throat, phlegm, loss of smell, watery or itchy eyes are also common reactions to pollution.

Dr Woo, a Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong specializing in ear, nose and throat problems, estimates that patients with allergic rhinitis or rhino-sinusitis now account for around 30 to 40 per cent per cent of cases at the Ear Nose and Throat clinic compared to around 10 to 15 per cent a decade ago.

Dr Woo said the nose, being the air filter to the lungs, was the first to suffer from pollution.

“When working properly, the nose filters out about 90 per cent of pollutants. But when you have a lot of pollutants in the air, it has to work harder,” he said.

In people with allergic tendencies who have become sensitive to pollutants, a slight increase in pollution may be too much for the nose to bear, resulting in the allergic reaction including inflammation and all the accompanying symptoms.

“You may think you have a cold and the symptoms may be the same. But the difference is that an infected condition, even without treatment, is self-limiting. It may last one or two weeks and then you get over it,” said Dr Woo. “With allergic rhinitis the symptoms will not get better but will linger on.”

It is the lingering nature of these symptoms which distinguishes an allergy from a cold and eventually leads many people to their doctors.

Respiratory specialist Dr Lam Bing, honorary assistant professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said rhinitis was known to affect around 20-30 per cent of the population in the world.

A recent report by the International Study into Allergies and Asthma found that while cases of asthma had appeared to plateau, the minor health problem of rhinitis is on the increase.

“It is very common problem but many people ignore it,” Dr Lam said.

Exactly how much pollution is to blame is difficult to say, noted Dr Lam, however studies have also shown people living nearer to highways have far greater chances of developing respiratory problems than those living in urban areas.

The bad news for all among us living and working downtown in Asia’s polluted cities is there is little we can do while pollution remains a problem.

Anti-histamines, which reduced the allergic reaction, can alleviate the itching and sneezing, while steroid-based nasal drops can reduce some of the inflammation and clear the nose and pain killers provide relief in the case a sore throat.

But all these only treat the symptoms and not the cause and in the long term nasal allergies can lead to nasal polyps which may require surgery and are more difficult to treat.

Dr Koo offers this advice. “Reduce your exposure to the very polluted areas. If you know you are going to a more polluted area, then start the preventive medicine for the allergy before you go.

“If you have minor symptoms such as throat discomfort, more phlegm, keep an eye on your health, drink more water and take some Vitamin C, and you should be fine. If symptoms persist, see a doctor.

“Unfortunately my impression is generally there is no escape – unless you move to somewhere less polluted such as Cyprus or Greece.”

Comments are closed.